Posted by: oldsalt1942 | January 27, 2016

Foam Pontoons Redux

I think I suffer from a totally new mental disorder that I’ve labeled SBADD (Shanty Boat Attention Deficit Disorder). It’s akin to ADOLAP disorder (Adult Deficit Oh Look A Puppy!). In other words I vacillate from one idea of how I want to build a shanty boat.

I would truly love to have something like Bryan Lowe’s dream of the H.W. Taunt. Who wouldn’t?


But the reality is I don’t think I have either the skill level or the physical stamina to build something like that, more’s the pity. The reality is that I’m a nearly 74 year-old guy with 3 stents in his coronary arteries and a lung capacity 34% of normal. I get winded making the bed (wish that was a joke, but it’s not). So as much as I would love to have something like theTaunt it’s just not going to happen.

So, right now I’m back on the idea of a pontoon boat. The shanty boat that I owned in Louisiana was a pontoon boat. It was basically a shack on a pair of 35-foot long by 24″ diameter well casings. Worked pretty well, and I lived on it for almost three years, but I only moved it three times. The first time was from where I’d found it on the Tchefuncta River on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain down to the Gulf Outlet Marina in Chalmette. a total run of about 42 miles. A couple of years later the starboard pontoon developed a leak and I moved it from the marina to the boatyard where I worked and back around 18 miles round trip.

What had happened was that the pontoon had rusted through in a couple of places right around the waterline. As the boat rocked water would slosh into the pontoon. I was able to drill a hole in the forward part of the pontoon and use a drill motor pump to clear it out. The steel was too thin to weld a patch and there were several holes and almost holes in both pontoons. What I did was to clean the effected areas and put fiberglass patches over them with polyester resin. Then I used 15 gallons of a special epoxy paint. The stuff was really thick. Like runny ketchup. I was able to get three coats of the stuff on the pontoons and it was probably close to 1/4″ thick.

Anyway, I’m not adverse to the idea of using pontoons for floatation. I investigated the possibility of making a raft type shanty using 55-gallon drums. There’s a place in Panama City where you can get metal ones for about $10/each, but then you’d have to ship them 300 miles out here to Boquerón. I checked a lot of places around here but no one had metal drums. The cheapest plastic ones I found were $35/each if I bought 20 of them. Forty five bucks each if I bought fewer than 20.

I’m not going to go cruising with whatever I build but I do want to be able to move it fairly easily and barrel rafts aren’t really great for doing that.

So that brings me to the pontoon idea again. The original idea was to use glass-covered plywood pontoons made in 2X2X4-foot segments and then join them together with bolts and epoxy. Seems like a good idea. After all, they build huge aircraft carriers in segments and join them all together to make a ship.

I’m thinking I’d make them between 20 and 24-feet long. How much could something like that support? Here’s what I figured out for pontoons 28-feet long (refer to previous post of “Resist the Urge” to see about “size creep”).

The pontoons will be 2-feet wide by 2-feet high, and between 24 and 28 feet long.

I decided on the pontoons because of the amount of flotation they offer. Here are the numbers I’ve come up with…

Each pontoon segment will be 2’X2’X4’ = 16 cubic feet

One cubic foot = 7.5 gallons (7.48)

One gallon of water weighs = 8.3453 pounds. One cubic foot = 7.48052 gallons. The weight of one cubic foot of water is 7.48052 gallons times 8.3453 pounds, which equals 62.42 pounds of water per cubic foot. OR, it would take 62.42 lbs. to completely sink a cubic foot container.

SO, 62.42 lbs X 16 cubic feet = 998.72 lbs. displacement for each 4’ pontoon. Minus the weight of the materials each pontoon will support, roughly, 900 lbs.

The sections in the bow would be made like the bow of a barge or scow, sloped up from the bottom to move through the water with less resistance. Figure that each one of those will be roughly half the volume of the regular one for a 28’ long structure overall, or roughly 11,700 lbs. flotation. Whatever kind of house structure I build on top of the pontoon segments plus all the junk that I’d bring aboard certainly isn’t going to amount to five and a half TONS!

If you look as building a raft-type structure using 55-gallon drums the figures look like this:

Now, a 55 gallon drum measures 35” X 24”. A 55 gallon drum will displace 459 lbs.

Because of the odd measurement of 35” you’d need 10 drums to make up each pontoon of a similar size to the plywood pontoons. Now you’re mucking around with non-standard size lumber or going for 10 barrels a side. And how much flotation? Potentially 9,180 lbs., before deducting the weight of the materials needed to contain them. So more than a ton less flotation than the plywood pontoons.

I also toyed with the idea of using closed-cell foam to build the pontoons and encase them with fiberglass in polyester resin. I know a lot of people will say it’s better to use epoxy, but the stuff is terribly expensive down here in Panama. Polyester resin is about a quarter of the price of epoxy, and just think of how many THOUSANDS of boats are floating around made with polyester resin!

Foam would be, of course, a LOT lighter than plywood pontoons would be and easier for me, in my physical condition, to move around. Some people are using foam insulation boards to build with.

pink foam

Foam insulation sheets can be bought at the big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot…


Eighteen sheets of this stuff would make a pair of 2X2X24-foot pontoons for $270! The problem HERE is they DON’T USE insulation in their construction. Almost everything is cement block construction which does have a bit of built-in insulation value. There’s only one place in all of Panama I’ve found that sells 4X8-foot sheets of closed-cell foam in 1″, 2″,3″, and 4″ thicknesses. When I called about a year ago the 4″ sheets went for $107 a piece. A pair of solid 24′ pontoons would cost $963. And that’s JUST for the foam.

I don’t know what the 1-or-2-inch sheets cost, but I’ll be in Panama City on the 3rd of February and stop at the supplier and find out. But it has got me going in another “what if” direction…

There’s a place in David that sells 2’X4’X1/2″ styrofoam drop ceiling tiles for 50¢ each. What if the 1″ or 2″ closed cell foam sheets were reasonably priced? What if I used THEM like I would if I was building the pontoons with plywood? Then, what if I filled the empty spaces with the ceiling tiles? I’d need 576 of those at a cost of $308.16, tax included. I’d have unsinkable pontoons on which to build the house.

I priced out what the wood costs would be if I built the pontoons with plywood. Wood cost, plywood and framing lumber as of Jan 26 = $806.32 using 3/4″ HDO for the bottoms and 1/2″ regular ply for the sides and top. Using regular ply the lumber would cost $710.02.

In both cases there would be extra costs for the glass cloth and resin.

And THIS is how I spend much of my day!



Posted by: oldsalt1942 | January 26, 2016

Difference Between Houseboat and a Shantyboat

I have recently begun corresponding via email with Bryan Lowe of (unfortunately his domain lapsed within the last couple of hours. Hope he restores it because besides myself he’s the only one I know of out there who is interested in ALL ASPECTS of shantyboats.)

In his interview with Derek “Deek” Diedricksen of (a font of great, adaptable ideas in his own right) Bryan had this to say about what it is that defines a shantyboat. (Some emphasis is mine)

Bryan Lowe: Well, In the dictionary shanty means a small crudely built dwelling, so a shantyboat would therefore mean a crudely built boat, and that is a part of it, up to a point.  No shanty has gold plating, literally or figuratively.  These are simple craft, homebuilt by untrained builders, with an eye toward extended stay, such as your life allows. For a few, it’s living aboard in some backwater full time. For most of us, we build our simple craft and grab as many weekends as we can, always dreaming of a future time with expanded shantyboat living. The line between houseboat and shanty is always subjective. There are a few givens: you can buy a houseboat but you can’t buy a new shantyboat.  A houseboat can be built with virtually unlimited resources, but a shantyboat almost requires a little pragmatic scrounging.   And finally, there is intent.  Are you trying to recreate a home that just happens to be on the water, or create a homebuilt replica of a commercially built houseboat?  Shantyboats aspire to a different aesthetic.  They can be cute, they can be painted, they can be cozy, but there must be no mistaking them for commercially built.  A shantyboat is handcrafted by it’s owner, with care, with affection, and with a decidedly pragmatic streak!  Shantyboats are square, they have edges, with no effort to make it more aero or hydro dynamic.  In the end it’s like porn.  You know one when you see one, without doubt.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | January 24, 2016

The Doc Bremer and the H. W. Taunt

One of the best shantyboat sites (besides this one, of course) is The site has been the inspiration for quite a few of the articles I’ve posted here.

Bryan Lowe runs the site and has actually built several shanty boats. Among them are his version of Phil Theil’s Escargot:


Bryan also has a great sense of humor for building this:

Click the link to see his micro shanty in action.

micro 2


Lately, though he’s been thinking along bigger lines than a 4X8-foot micro shanty. His wife is demanding more headroom than the Escargot offers and Bryan has been inspired by two old boats. The Doc Bemer on the Mississippi river:

doc bremer 1

And the H.W. Taunt over in England…


These seem to be variations on the Loire river barges in France…

loire barge

The Loire barges were working boats and carry a HUGE square sail when the wind is right.

Bryan has done some Sketchup drawings and has actually started putting together an egg crate framing



I really like where this is heading and would love to do one myself.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | January 14, 2016

Resist The Urge

I don’t know if it’s a universal trait or not, but people in the United States have long believed that “Bigger is Better.” “Size Matters.” I want to scream, “No it isn’t!” and “No it doesn’t!”

On the other side of the coin you have dumbest phrase of ALL TIME in “Less is More.”  I can’t tell you how much this makes my back teeth ache. NO IT’S NOT!!! MORE is MORE! Less, by its very definition isn’t as much so it CAN’T be more! Now less can sometimes be BETTER than more but Less is NEVER more.

One of the most often asked boating questions is “What size boat do I need to go cruising?” Well, if you pay attention to the boating and cruising magazines whose life blood is the advertising income they receive from boat manufacturers and equipment manufacturers. Your life is in imminent danger the moment you leave the dock in anything less than 45 or fifty feet of fiberglass tricked out with every electronic device known to mankind. I remember once someone describing another person’s boat saying it was fantastic because it had the “most expensive” navigation gear available. Naysayer that I am I said that NO, most “expensive” is NOT  a synonym for “best.” Those same boating mags totally ignore the fact that Robert Manry in 1965 sailed from Falmouth, Mass. to Falmouth, Cornwall, England in Tinkerbelle a tiny 13.5-foot (4.1 m) sailboat.


Or that 16 year old Robin Lee Graham sailed his 24′ Dove around the world alone


or that Tania Aebi did a solo circumnavigation in a 26′ sailboat when she was 18.


Between 1955 and 1959 John Guzzwell sailed solo around the world in a boat that wasn’t quite 21 feet long.


The answer to the question “What size boat do I need to go cruising?” was best summed up, I think by Don Casey and Lew Hackler in their book Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach when they said, “The one you have.”

I absolutely LOVE this book and the advice in it is gold…

And “cruising” DOESN’T have to entail great ocean crossings. Taking your boat and going to a little cove you’ve never been to before is going cruising.

L. Francis Herreshoff, who knew a thing or three about boats had this to say about cruising . . . “Cruising should be entirely for pleasure, and when it ceases to be so it no longer makes sense. Of course those who want to beat out what little brains they have in a night thrash to windward should have a strong, stiff racing machine, a very expensive contraption, one which sacrifices the best qualities of a cruiser. But the little yacht that can snuggle alongside some river bank for the night and let its crew have their supper in peace while listening to the night calls of the whippoorwill will keep its crew much more contented. They will be particularly happy and contented when the evening rain patters on the deck and the coal-burning stove becomes the center of attraction. Then if you can lie back in a comfortable place to read, or spend the evening in pleasant contemplation of the next day’s run, well, then you can say “This is really cruising.”

And here’s a truism most people aren’t aware of: “Boats are used in inverse proportion to their size!” That is, the smaller the boat and the easier it is to use then the more it WILL BE USED.

So, what got me started on this rant in the first place? Well, I’ve once again been bitten by  the “I need to have a shanty boat bug!” And I’ve been pouring over old articles I’ve saved and scouring the internet for new inspiration. And last night I saw this neat thing. It’s LaMar Alexander’s 8×12 Stealth-boat Tiny House Design.


The VERY FIRST THING that crossed my mind was, “with just three more sheets of plywood you could extend it to 8X20 feet and have a lot more room!” I mean that was my instant reaction, and it’s really not wrong, I don’t believe, if you’re making something that you intend to live on.×12-stealth-boat-tiny-house-design/#m2rqK975Cd4K6q2A.99

An eight by twelve foot shanty like this would be a great weekender or fine for a short vacation, but I really believe if you’re going to spend much time on it you need to make it AT LEAST 16-feet long but I wouldn’t go over 20 because of cost, weight, time to build, etc.

Just be wary of where you brain leads you. It’s going to automatically make you want to go bigger.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | January 13, 2016

Ideas That Won’t Work

One of my favorite quotes of all times is, “Every man has a million dollar idea that won’t work.” That’s SO TRUE, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be worth a million dollars for that idea not to work…

Way back last September I wrote a post about using foam blocks with steel grids to possibly build pontoons using a ferro cement method.

In that post I mentioned that I often pass by a place on the bus route that actually has the stuff. Well, today I decided to finally take a look at it. As you can see from this picture it has sort of a wavy pattern to the foam, probably to give the concrete better structural strength…I don’t really have a clue, though.


The foam is about 2″ thick, though that’s just a guess from memory looking at it. I didn’t actually measure it. The wire part is pretty chintzy. To do a ferrocement cement construction you’d need to attach a lot of chicken wire to the wire that’s already on the foam. I don’t think it would be worth the time and effort. But my most recent brain storm, was the possibility of using the foam as a core and putting fiberglass on both sides and making a barge hull. Glass foam construction is an actual way of creating one-off boats, for real.

Up close and personal, as they say, the wire mesh is pretty chintzy. it’s not embedded into the foam but rather at each corner there is a sort of barb that pierces the foam to hold the mesh in place. It would be quite easy to rip the stuff off of the foam, but the ripples wouldn’t be a good stratus to glass over.

But I was curious about the stuff anyway so I went inside and talked to one of the sales people. Normally I do okay with my Spanish but I wasn’t getting through to this guy. The Spanish word for “foam” is “espuma” but he thought I was talking about the expanding foam stuff that comes in cans. I told him what I wanted they had stored across the street, and so we went to take a look at it.

“Ah, tres em ay.” Three M. Yes, Three M makes the stuff. We went back to the main, air conditioned, store and he looked it up on the computer. Each 4’X8′ piece costs $34.95, With 7% tax it comes to $34.70. It would take about 8 sheets for $277.60. Not counting glass and resin, etc.

I then asked his supervisor if they could order similar blocks of foam without the mesh and he said, “No.”

“Really, you can’t order foam blocks?” I said.

“No,” he replied.

“Is it because you can’t, or because you won’t?” I asked, with a wink.

He just shrugged his shoulders with a sardonic wink, and walked away.

Oh, well.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | November 19, 2015

Shanty Boater’s Idea Of Heaven?

Halong Bay Floating Village, Vietnam, must be a shanty boater’s idea of dying and going to heaven…

floating village 2


There are about 600 residents of this floating village, most of whom, not surprisingly,  make a living from the sea.

floating village



Posted by: oldsalt1942 | October 21, 2015

Adaptable Ideas

While this link will take you to a story about converting a cargo van into a living space there’s a LOT here that can be adapted and adopted into a shantyboat.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | October 14, 2015

If I Can’t Have A Shantyboat….

Then I want to live HERE….


Posted by: oldsalt1942 | October 10, 2015

The Ultimate Hammock For Boat Nuts Like Me

I’ve got a big post coming up about hammocks in the works. My hiking brother, Jeff, calls them “Bear Piñatas.” But if you’re a boat nut like me they don’t get much cooler than this…boat

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | October 9, 2015


Just some thoughts when it comes to hot water on a shanty boat…

Some might say I’m a bit strange, and I won’t argue the point. Some might say I live a minimalist lifestyle and I’m not so sure that’s entirely true but there are hints of it.

Almost all of us gringos grew up with hot water for bathing. Hardly any Panamanians did. In fact, there is a belief among many Panamanians that hot showers and baths are actually bad for one’s health. In fact, I had a neighbor lady tell me just that within the last week!

Over the years I’ve had situations where hot water wasn’t available at the turn of the tap. When I lived on my shanty boat in New Orleans I didn’t have hot water. When I wanted hot water to shave I had to put a pot on the stove and warm the water up. No big deal. I worked at a boat yard and did a lot of paint “prep” which consisted of spending eight hours a day with an electric sander in my hand making dust, much of which covered me by quitting time. Back at the boat I had a shower head rigged to a hose supported on a 2X4. New Orleans has a pretty hot climate most of the year, and the water in PVC piping that serviced my dock was rarely cold. Tepid to warm would be the best words to describe the water temperature so it was pleasant. In the three or four winter months I had a good friend who lived on my route home from the yard and he kindly allowed me to shower at his place. So things worked out pretty well.

The next time my living conditions didn’t have hot water on demand was when I bought my much-missed Nancy Dawson, a Kaiser 26 sailboat. I took off on her for nine months and single-handed to Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala It was always hot there so when I was in the salt water areas I’d dive off the side of the boat, climb up in the dinghy and lather up with Joy dishwashing soap (the only thing that produces lather in salt water) and then I’d rinse off with fresh water. That’s necessary because salt from the sea drying on your body will eventually give you a rash. When I returned to the States I lived for close to two years in a boat yard and then at a marina for another four years or so, and each place had shower rooms so hot water was not a problem.

In the first year and a half here in Panama I was house sitting at a place for two six-month stints and they had an on-demand hot water heater. The place here in Boqueron also has an on-demand water heater that doesn’t work simply because most of the time the water pressure isn’t high enough to trigger it. Now, I haven’t gotten used to cold water showers, though I have to say the water is never cold as it is in the States, but it’s still cold enough that I don’t find it comfortable most of the time. The exception is on really hot days in the middle of the afternoon then it feels good to get in the shower.

For shaving I do what I did on the shanty boat. Heat water in a pot and use that. I wash dishes in cold water and since most houses in the country don’t have hot water some brilliant people have created a soap that lathers up in cold water.

So, how do I deal with the cold water showers? Well, one way is what I would call a “modified sponge bath.” That is to say I stay out of the main stream of the water and use a soapy face cloth to wash myself. I don’t mind sticking my head in the cold water to wash my hair, though.

But I DO like warm water to shower with. For quite a while I used a “Sun Shower.” One of those four-gallon plastic bags that you lay in the sun for a couple of hours and it heats up the water. Does a damned good job, too. You can scald yourself if you’re not careful. The problems I had with it was hanging it up in the shower compartment space. Fresh water weighs 8 lbs. a gallon, so hoisting the 32-pound bag was a bit of a pain in the ass. Also, since it’s gravity-fed and the shower head nozzle was only about three feet off the deck I had to squat down to get under the water stream. It wasn’t a lot of fun to use, but I did. The biggest problem  was keeping the inside of the bag clean. Green slime would build up and eventually, even bleach wouldn’t get rid of the crud.

The end result for getting a hot water shower comes in the form of this thing. (Photo) It’s designed to spray toxic chemicals on weeds. I’d tried a smaller version years ago on the sailboat. It only held a gallon of water, and the spray nozzle wasn’t worth a damn. I think I tried it two or three times and gave up. But I decided to try again. This one holds 2-1/2 gallons. I did cut the hose and nozzle off of the sun shower and rigged it up to the new setup. A little bit of black spray paint et voilà as we used to say over in Antibes, France.

This certainly does the job though it’s no where near as exhilarating as standing under a REAL hot shower. I set it outside in the sun for a few hours and the water heats up nicely. A few strokes of the pump handle and there’s a decent flow of water. There’s a thing-a-mah-jig by the squeezer on the spray handle that allows for a continuous stream. Since the capacity of the unit is only 2-1/2 gallons you can’t stand under the hot water stream for a long time, but it’s enough to actually provide TWO Navy showers.

A Navy shower is essential for shipboard life where fresh water is limited. What you do is get wet, shut off the water stream, lather up, rinse off. It works. Another feature of the new set up over the Sun Shower is that the neck of the bottle is pretty wide, so if it has been a cloudy day, or I want to take a shower early in the morning all I have to do it put on the big pot of water, heat it up and pour it in to the container with the cooler water and then I’m able to get a comfortable shower.

Like I said, I don’t recommend that people live as I do. Most wouldn’t want to, but I’m adaptable. You have to be, after all, to live for nearly six years on a 26-foot sailboat.

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